Editorial: Sacramento loses out on natural history museum

It is disappointing that a proposal for a new natural history museum on Sacramento’s riverfront is dead. But it’s understandable given how much baggage was attached to the project.

Paul and Renee Snider announced over the weekend that they are shelving the natural history museum and donating $1 million to the California Automobile Museum. The gift, the single largest in its 20-year history, will be seed money to either expand and fix the auto museum, now consigned to a leaky warehouse, or build a new one.

Last July, the Sniders offered $15 million for a project putting the two museums in a single building that would have featured their personal collection of exotic game from six continents, including lions, rhinos, a giraffe and a polar bear. They said the 60,000 square feet of exhibits, focusing on education and animal conservation, would be on par with those at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City or the Field Museum in Chicago.

But the proposal immediately drew objections, most vocally from the Humane Society of the United States, which said that trophy hunting is harming endangered species. Similar criticism forced the Sniders in 2007 to abandon a museum at California State University, Sacramento.

Opponents of the new proposal also argued that the planned site – 5 acres of city-owned land on Front Street – conflicted with the city’s animal shelter across the street. Others questioned the building’s design and whether the marriage of exhibits of stuffed animals and antique cars made sense.

In response, the Sniders and their supporters pulled back to consider the concerns and their options. Through their public relations firm late Saturday, they said they are not moving forward with the natural history museum.

The decision is a setback for the Docks, a proposed 29-acre residential and commercial development along the Sacramento River, and for the dream of a cultural district stretching from the Crocker Art Museum to the planned Powerhouse Science Center.

To become the “world-class city” that political and business leaders often talk about, arts and cultural facilities are as important as a new basketball arena. It’s a loss that a compromise couldn’t be reached to create a natural history museum of national stature. Done right, it could have been another jewel in Sacramento’s crown.